St. Petersburg billboard deal raises another troubling question

Being a worrywart, I worry about one other thing in St. Petersburg's deal to allow digital billboards in the city.

The deal says that any company that puts up these billboards has to give space to the city government for messages of "significant public interest."

What kind of messages? Some are clearly public-service stuff: Amber Alerts, traffic hazards, hurricane and evacuation information.

But the billboard company also has to supply advertising for all "city sponsored and co-sponsored events." Under the proposed ordinance, the company has to keep running such advertising…

…throughout the duration of the event in a manner designed to provide reasonable and effective notice of the event.

Everybody involved thinks this is a good deal for all sides, a win-win, as they say.

But the deal raises questions in both directions — government to private sector, and vice versa.

We're talking about a law that would force the private sector to publish whatever message or content the government supplies, as a condition of doing business at all.

In this case, the billboard company, Clear Channel Communications, is willing, even eager to provide this "public service." Maybe all future applicants will be too. But that doesn't change the principle.

What's wrong, you ask, with requiring Amber Alerts or evacuation information? Who could possibly be against that kind of thing? I don't know.

But I also don't know that the government has the legal power to force private citizens to publish them, either.

Beyond that, when it comes to city-sponsored or co-sponsored events — that is opening a whole 'nother can of worms. Now we're talking about pure event advertising, no matter whether the private company wants it, or whether it has customers with competing interests or points of view.

There also is an unhealthy risk that points in the other direction, from the private sector to the government.

We're talking about a private interest offering, to the government and elected officials, the unlimited free publication of whatever message they choose. This is more or less crack cocaine for politicians. This is a deal-sweetener, a payment to the government to gain a business permit.

Even if the city's intentions are pure (who's against hurricane warnings? ) there is no mechanism in the ordinance for restraint. What other messages will the city decide are of "significant public interest"?

Why not more propaganda like the kind on government's television stations? Why not blanket the highways with the smiling faces of the mayor and City Council?

At least we have a new state law that bans local governments from "electioneering," or telling citizens explicitly how to vote in elections.

But even that law allows the government to "educate" citizens about what is on the ballot. Can we expect to be "educated" by the government via billboard on the future virtues of, say, a tax measure, or a charter amendment?

The government should not be able to force private interests to convey government messages as a condition of doing business — even if the private interest is willing.

In turn, a private interest should not be able to offer to serve as the government's publicity arm to get something in return.

Better to limit this ordinance to requiring public-service information in time of declared emergency.

St. Petersburg billboard deal raises another troubling question 12/09/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 9, 2009 7:35pm]

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